May 21, 2011


I bet any number of comic fans think they could answer this question right off the bat. Alpha Flight are Canada’s super hero team! Right?
Well, yes. That is technically true, but it is a very superficial answer to the question. Almost every super team tends to have something of a concept to it. The Fantastic Four are the first family of Marvel – adventurers and heroes, who act as a family. The Defenders are the non-team, a bunch of guys who do stuff as a team without ever formally being a team. The X-men are mutants who hate and fear a world that seeks to protect them… there’s concepts for every team.

These concepts are the root of the stories that are told about the team, and how much you like the concept drives how much you enjoy the team.

Alpha Flight’s concept is simple. They’re the most fucked-up bunch of misfits ever, trying to pretend to be a team. Or to put it another way – a bunch of dudes build a team and bad shit happens to the team.

That's the worst letter C I've ever seen.
The Alpha Flight team began life in the X-men books, as antagonists for Wolverine. The team was then spun off into their own comic book series that lasted 130 issues. We don’t have to look at the whole series to find out who Alpha Flight is, though. The important part is the first 66 issues, written by John Byrne (1-28) and then by Bill Mantlo (29-66). After that, the series really spends too much time ‘getting things back on track’ after Bill Mantlo’s run. Which rather misses the point, doesn’t it?

John Byrne (with the help of Chris Claremont) created the most -- and it's impossible to say this without swearing -- fucked up team in comics. The leader was a reckless scientist, who was playing at being a hero. The other members were gamma-irradiated monsters, half-goddesses and alien predators. Not to mention midgets. Hairy midgets.
 The initial set of main characters were Guardian and his wife (Mac and Heather Hudson), Aurora and Northstar (Jeanne-Marie and Jean-Paul Beaubier), Sasquatch (Walter Langkowski), Snowbird (Anne McKenzie), Marrina, Puck (Eugene Judd), and Shaman (Dr. Michael Twoyoungmen). Later other characters would join the team, and Heather would become the leader as a hero named Vindicator.
From the first, Byrne played with your expectations of the characters. Marrina, a fish-woman who thinks she’s a mutant, joins the team with issue 1. By issue 2 she’s eviscerated a team-mate and abandoned the team, then by issue 4 she’s learnt that she’s actually a killer alien from another planet, part of a breeding pair sent to annihilate all life on earth and re-populate the planet. After that she leaves the book to shack up with the Sub-Mariner!

That’s right, one of the members of the team discovered she was a monster and left the book by issue four. It gets worse.

Another member, Sasquatch, later found out that he was actually an ancient ‘great beast’, destined to destroy mankind. Then he had his heart ripped out by his team-mate, Snowbird. Then he tried to possess the Hulk. Then he was resurrected in the dead body of Snowbird, which made him female! I promise you I’m not kidding. 

Those first 66 issues are a ride, often a very bleak and horrifying ride. It’s not a book for people who like a status quo, or for people who like things to go well for their favourite characters. Alpha Flight is one of those books where if things are going well you know that an enormous disaster is not far behind.

Many fans of the initial John Byrne run actually actively resent Bill Mantlo for things he did to the team. He did some horrible things and confronting things, but it’s the changes to the characters themselves that people resent most. Things like making Sasquatch a woman, or revealing that Puck wasn’t actually a midget, he was a tall dude with a demon inside him. Or I dunno, revealing the Northstar and Aurora aren’t actually mutants at all… they’re elves. It’s funny that these changes were actively resented when Byrne himself constantly flipped characters’ histories, powers and origins around, and people love his run.

I love what Bill Mantlo did with the book. It totally fits with the mood and tone set by John Byrne. You’re not supposed to know what these characters are. They are supposed to suddenly be revealed to be something they’re not. This is meant to be the most fucked-up team in comics. Sadly, this vision was really lost after Bill Mantlo left the book.
I bet Jim Lee's really proud of this...
Later writers undid almost all of his changes. Northstar and Aurora were mutants again; couldn’t have them being elves! Walter Langowski became a boy again; wouldn’t want to actually explore him dealing with being a woman! Puck? Well, he was reset into being a midget again too. Why? I don’t know, honestly. It’s boring. Resetting things back to the ‘way they were’ is a common problem in long-running comics, but in Alpha Flight it’s downright torturous. 

Mantlo isn’t the only victim either. Even though he was the creator of the team, which would usually give his work ‘immunity’, John Byrne still had some of his stuff undone. Probably the most horrible was having Guardian, the main hero of the early book, coming back to life. At the time Byrne was known for his complicated, over-indulgent, convoluted resurrection stories. Just read some contemporary Fantastic Four. In Alpha Flight though, he parodied his own tendencies. He wrote a story where Guardian seemingly came back to life, telling an absurd over-complicated resurrection story… only to have it be revealed that he was actually just a robot.

Later writers couldn’t let this just be, and decided we needed Guardian back. Yay, I guess.
To be fair, it seems that after Mantlo left Alpha Flight there was a lot of editorial interference, and a lot of mandates on wrapping up stories and resetting characters. James D. Hundnall (Mantlo's successor) for example, was given orders to change Sasquatch back into a male for his second issue on the title. Not that Hudnall wasn't planning this reset anyway, but the editorial mandate made the transition forced and truncated. Still, Hudnall's vision for Alpha Flight was not forward thinking, but rather very revisionist. In his own words:

I wanted to make the book more in line with Byrne's vision, which I felt was generally a good one. I liked Byrne's run except he was kind of unfocused direction-wise. Probably because he was bored. So one of the things I did was try to give Alpha Flight more of a purpose.
I was going to try to restore the team to Byrne's original cast except for the first Guardian. And then, I wanted to take it from there. But I never got the chance.

Restoring the book to Byrne’s vision, when you don’t even get that vision? The entire point of the book was that the team didn’t have a focus. Hudnall struggled with his editor, and with an unsuited artist all through his run, until he was fired from the book because a new editor wanted Fabian Nicieza to take over the writing chores. Fortunately Nicieza had lasting impact on the comic… by bringing back the original Guardian, and making Puck a dwarf again! Dammit.
I bet Cyclops never has these sorts of problems...
It’s understandable that writers make these mistakes in judging what the book is about. Alpha Flight is full of red herrings. The biggest is this old idea of Alpha Flight as Canada’s super team. Canada does play a part in Alpha Flight, but in really esoteric ways. There's the sense of being in the shadow of America, the idea of an oppressive environment, these are important to the book. Most important of all is that sense of isolation from the big show (y'know -- New York). Alpha Flight could easily have taken place in any foreign country with the same results. 

When you get down to it, the book is about the characters and the horrible crap that happens to them, not about where they live. This is very seldom expressed in Marvel advertising for the book, or in promotion. It’s also not discussed an enormous amount by the creators, outside of John Byrne. Honestly, it’s always been something you’d have to actually read the books to understand. As new writers joined the book, and the series went through editorial changes you started to feel that someone was missing the point.

Alpha Flight had always been a book without a status quo, without any solid ground to rely on. That was the fun of it. By throwing out that idea later writers on the series sapped the life from it. I’ll be even fairer to the other writers and admit that the tail end of Mantlo’s run wasn’t up to snuff. After issue 50, where he wrapped up most of his ongoing plotlines, he seemed to run out of steam. Things got bogged down. The old characters were almost entirely gone from the book (bringing them back isn’t a bad thing, it’s resetting them to their old status quo that I object to) and the new characters while suitably weird, weren’t as... likeable as the old.
Despite that, his last 16 issues are still worlds better than most other later Alpha Flight, and he wasn’t constantly trying to ‘fix things’ by putting them back to some perceived status quo that never existed in the first place.

Since the original series of Alpha Flight ended there have been several revival series, and in one story recently all the left over characters were killed off to make some new threat in Marvel Universe seem really powerful. Actually I don’t mind that – an unceremonious mass-murder sounds like exactly how John Byrne would have concluded the series. (Which is probably why Marvel brought them back to life for Fear Itself.)

My original question was, “Who the hell are Alpha Flight”. Mate, they're the most fucked up team in comics.
--Andrew S.
(But hey... feel free to correct me if I'm wrong!)


  1. For two years, at Fanexpo CB Cebulski would air a slide with "Ready for more Alpha Flight?" and then the next slide would be their dead bodies in the snow with a captain like "Keep dreaming." he would then assure the audience that there were early plans for the team. Last year he admit that those plans never came to fruition and they were still waiting for the right pitch. I have to wonder if he knew there was an actual real come-back on the horizon when he said that.

    I personally think that Michael Avon Oeming and Scott Kolin's initiative-era line up of mostly Americans (titled Omega Flight) could have been great, but the ongoing was cut back to a miniseries with a rushed ending and the team was gradually disassembled.

    I'll buy any comic that mentions Oakville. but if Scott Pilgrim didn't deliver, I doubt marvel will.

  2. Only one thing wrong with this was in the first paragraph.
    "The X-men are mutants who hate and fear a world that seeks to protect them"

    The X-men are actually mutants who protect a world that hates and fears them, not the other way around.

  3. It was a joke, Cancer.
    I think I can see my way to agreeing with a lot of what was written here, save for bringing them back from the dead being a 'good thing'.
    That's the very epitome of the Status Quo that this team is supposed to NOT have.